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Dean Evason's Wild Are Ditching Their Boring Play Style

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Historically, when most hockey fans thought of the Minnesota Wild, only one word came to mind: boring. But what earned them that reputation? Most would say that because of their stifling defense, but that doesn’t quite hold water. No one snoozed during Colorado Avalanche last year because of their stifling defense. Same with peak Chicago Blackhawks or Detroit Red Wings teams.

Others would pin it on the lack of star power, which absolutely was a factor. A marquee player to watch can make a boring team less of a slog to watch. But this diagnosis misses one crucial ingredient that was key to sealing the Wild’s dull reputation. Three little words: Dump and chase.

For those unfamiliar with hockey jargon, don’t worry; this one’s as easy as it sounds. Dump and chase is a strategy where a player enters the offensive zone by chipping the puck past the defense and trying to retrieve it instead of a player entering the zone with control of the puck. If you’ve ever heard an announcer, coach, or player say “get pucks deep,” they’re talking about dump and chase.

If you watched any Wild games before October, you heard “get pucks deep” a lot. It was practically their mantra. Even last year’s team, the most exciting in franchise history, weren’t immune to this snoozefest playstyle. Corey Snznajder of All Three Zones tracks NHL zone entries, and this is how Wild forwards performed last season:

Minnesota leaned heavily on Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala to enter the zone with control of the puck. Both were elite at it, but the two got little support elsewhere. Marcus Johansson and (just barely) Marcus Foligno were the only other Wild players to carry in the puck at an above-average rate. Everyone else? It was Dump and Chase City.

But Kaprizov and Fiala single-handedly dragged Minnesota to a 47% carry-in percentage, just above league average. It was the first time in recorded history, likely the first time since the mid-2000s, and perhaps the first time that the Wild accomplished this. And now, Evason’s Wild are even more committed to carrying the puck into the zone.

According to Sznajder’s data for this year, Minnesota carries the puck into the offensive zone on 53.7% of its entries. That’s sixth in the NHL and a gigantic step forward from last year. Kaprizov and Fiala are still elite, but look at the rest of the roster, and you’ll see that most of the team now carries the puck on over half their entries.

Notice how little the roster has changed. New faces like Rem Pitlick and Freddy Gaudreau have helped, but holdovers like Mats Zuccarello, Nick Bjugstad, Marcus Foligno, and more improved immensely. Either they all spent this offseason working on carrying the puck, or Evason’s system is responsible. As a result, the Wild are becoming everything they don’t stand for: A fast, fun team.

Why is this switch necessary? Sure, it’s nicer to watch, but how does it lead to wins?

One of the earliest and most important discoveries in modern hockey analysis was about zone entries. Eric Tulsky, now a Carolina Hurricanes executive, discovered that zone entries with control (mostly carry-ins) generate twice the amount of shots as uncontrolled entries. It makes sense: If you dump the puck, that means you have to get it back to get a shot. That’s not always going to happen, so it will naturally decrease the effectiveness of a dump and chase team.

Dump and chase can indeed work for some teams. The Los Angeles Kings relied heavily on the tactic during their Stanley Cup years. Ironically, Tulsky’s Hurricanes are doing the same thing this year. But to have success with the strategy, you need forwards skilled at retrieving the puck, which Minnesota rarely ever had.

The Wild have one excellent puck retrieval line in Foligno, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Jordan Greenway. Even they benefit from the new emphasis on puck-carrying, though, making their attack more varied. The rest of Minnesota’s lines employ at least one puck-carrying forward to great effect.

Obviously, having Kaprizov and Fiala on their own lines helps balance the zone entry load. Both do a great job entering the offensive zone with control and generating scoring chances. But unlike last year, both of them have support from their linemates. Zuccarello is much more aggressive in entering the zone with control this year, which has resulted in a sharp uptick in 5-on-5 production for Kaprizov. Fiala has a rotating cast of Gaudreau, Pitlick, and even Victor Rask as secondary options who are reliably carrying in the puck this year. It’s a big reason why he still has decent production despite shooting 4.4%.

Even the fourth line is getting in on the action. Nick Bjugstad may only have four goals and no assists to show for it, but he’s also entering the zone with control more often. What would otherwise be a simple dump and chase line now can get scoring chances, which at the very least means the puck isn’t in their own end constantly.

Winning is fun, but putting an entertaining product on the ice is important, too. The State of Hockey has seen good teams, but their lack of watchability put them behind the Vikings, Twins, and often even the Timberwolves in local buzz. Winning (at least enough to make the playoffs consistently) isn’t enough, even for their home market. Winning with style, though? That’s a team that fans can fall in love with, and the Wild are putting a fun product on the ice that’s also racking up Ws.

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